IICSA research report into child sexual abuse in ethnic minority communities

In June 2020, IICSA published a research report into child sexual abuse in ethnic minority communities. The research aimed to draw out how ethnicity, community and culture shapes people’s experiences of child sexual abuse. To do this, the research engaged with a range of ethnic minorities particularly from Caribbean, African and South Asian ethnicities, including victims and survivors of child sexual abuse. This article will explore the research findings, which will be used to enhance the Inquiry’s knowledge of child sexual abuse in ethnic minority communities.

The first key research finding is that cultural stereotypes and racism can lead to failures on the part of institutions and professionals to identify and respond appropriately to child sexual abuse. Furthermore, it could also make it more difficult for individuals in ethnic minority communities to disclose and speak up about child sexual abuse. Cultural stereotypes and racism were highlighted by the research as two key themes throughout discussions with participants, with two broad operational mechanisms:

  1. Stereotypes and misconceptions about what is ‘normal’ or ‘acceptable’ for certain ethnic groups could lead to child sexual abuse going unrecognised or professionals taking no action in response.
  2. Racism in society could make it harder for individuals in ethnic minority communities to speak up about child sexual abuse out of concern for reinforcing negative stereotypes and could lead to institutions and professionals failing to intervene for fear of being labelled ‘racist’.

A further related finding was that some professionals only saw a person’s ethnic group rather than the whole person, with individual’s experiences and treatment then being shaped by these assumptions and stereotypes. Participants highlighted the importance of the whole person being seen when responding to child sexual abuse. While important to some participants, others emphasised qualities such as being non-judgemental and appropriately trained rather than professionals being of the same ethnic background.

Participants’ perceptions and experiences of institutions in relation to child sexual abuse were mixed but tended to be negative. Specific experiences of racism and the context of wider relations between certain institutions and minority ethnic groups influenced how participants felt about approaching institutions about child sexual abuse. Participants identified a lack of cultural diversity in institutions as off-putting to members of ethnic minority communities and recognised it as a factor which hampered the ability of the institution to respond. However, participants did acknowledge the important role of institutions in responding to child sexual abuse – particularly schools.  Participants identified sex education in schools as an important way to educate children about child sexual abuse, but also noted that many parents – in South Asian communities in particular – objected to sex education in schools.  

A wide range of barriers to disclosure were identified by the participants, many of which could be equally applicable to all communities and ethnic groups. However, a key concern identified among some ethnic minority communities was the potential impact of disclosure on the reputation of the family and community, the victim and survivor, and the perpetrator. Shame and stigma were frequently mentioned by participants as leading to a code of silence and could act as drivers of responses to child sexual abuse that seek to preserve honour rather than to meet the needs of the victim and survivor. Given these concerns, many participants expressed further concerns about how disclosures might be escalated, with victims and survivors expressing that they feared losing control over how their information would be handled and passed on.

Victims and survivors of child sexual abuse within the study reported a diverse range of adverse impacts. Again, many of these are similar to the impacts reported by victims and survivors from all communities. A key finding relating to ethnic minority communities was the potential for child sexual abuse to have a serious impact on victims and survivors’ sense of identity and belonging within their communities. Following disclosure, some participants reported being ostracised from their communities and others had no longer been safe within them or had chosen to leave. The research identified a link between the way that child sexual abuse is seen and responded to in ethnic minority communities with expectations about gender within those communities. For example, child sexual abuse having a negative impact on marriage prospects for girls in some South Asian communities. The risk of being cut off from families and communities additionally acts as a barrier to disclosure and subsequent isolation impacts the support that victims and survivors receive.

Many of the victims and survivors did have some experience of seeking out or accessing support. However, many reported experiences of not knowing where to go and sometimes finding that support was just not available. Victims and survivors revealed that finding non-judgemental support was challenging, both from services and from informal family and support networks. A lack of understanding from family and community members highlighted the importance of access to appropriate statutory and voluntary support organisations. Participants also identified peer support from others with similar backgrounds who had also experienced abuse as beneficial.

Overall, the research highlights several areas in which improvements can be made to raise awareness, remove barriers to disclosure and improve responses to child sexual abuse in ethnic minority communities. It remains to be seen how the Inquiry will apply the research findings to address these areas and ensure that recommendations suit the needs of all communities.

Written by Lauren Donnison at BLM


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